Taylor Victor will now be allowed to wear a T-shirt that identifies her as a lesbian, after reaching a settlement with her school district that resulted in an update to the student dress code.
Last fall, Victor wore a shirt to her Northern California school that read, “Nobody knows I’m a lesbian.” She said she wore it ironically because she is open about her sexuality. The administration reprimanded her and gave a slew of defenses for that decision, saying the T-shirt was “disruptive” an “open invitation to sex,” could be “gang-related,” and that students couldn’t wear shirts that stated their “personal choices and beliefs.”
In response, Victor sued two administration officials with the representation of the ACLU. The Manteca Unified School District reached a settlement with the ACLU this week. Although the school district denied wrongdoing, it agreed to change its dress code to make it clear that students can wear clothes that support either their own identities on the basis of sexual orientation, gender, race, religion and other identities, or support their classmates identities, without retribution from the administration.
CREDIT: Courtesy of ACLU
The acknowledgement of identities broader than sexual orientation makes sense given previous statements made by an administrator regarding other messages that wouldn’t be allowed on shirts. In a post for Medium, Victor said the assistant principal also told ACLU lawyers that T-shirts with messages such as “I support interracial marriage” and “I support evolution” could be considered against the dress code.
The school district also agreed to protect Victor from any harassment that may result of wearing the shirt, to train its administrators on student expression, and to pay over $60,000 in attorneys fees and costs for the ACLU of Northern California.
Settlements like these are important because they show administrators that attempts to restrict LGBT students’ pride in their identities, and allies’ support of their identities, are not legally feasible. Although administrators attempt to use the popular claim that LGBT-themed T-shirts are “disruptive,” since disruption to student learning has been cited by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1969 Tinker v. Des Moines case as a legitimate reason for limiting student expression, it usually can’t be applied in this scenario. It could be seen as discriminating against a certain point of view if other messages are allowed on T-shirts, and it is becoming more difficult for administrators to argue a shirt supporting LGBT people is actually disruptive.
Lewdness, another standard for administration interference in student speech, is also a popular argument in these scenarios. One administrator claimed Victor’s T-shirt was an invitation to sex. But stating one’s sexuality and making a specific reference to sexual acts themselves are two different things, as Victor said she tried to explain to the administrator when the incident occurred.
Many other LGBT students are still encountering restrictions on their free speech, and these stories quickly gain national attention through news sites and social media. Just a month before Victor’s incident, it was reported that a lesbian student, Briana Popour, was suspended at Chesnee High School in South Carolina for wearing the exact same T-shirt as Victor.
The student’s mother told a local television station that an administrator said he does “not like people in his school wearing anything that says anything about lesbians, gays or bisexuals.” The school overturned the suspension, with the school district spokesperson Rhonda Henderson stating to U.S. News and World Report that the administration “realized that although the shirt was offensive and distracting to some adults in the building, the students were paying it little attention.”
Administrators also used the “disruption” defense in the case of Texas students wearing “Gay O.K.” T-shirts to discourage bullying of gay students. They claimed the T-shirts were disruptive to student learning, although legal experts say the disruption was probably perpetrated not by students, but administrators, since they chose to line students outside the cafeteria and asked them to turn the shirts inside out, drawing considerably more attention than the shirts would have on their own. A spokesperson eventually released a statement saying that the administrators should not have asked students to take off or change shirts.